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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: Please NASCAR, Not Martinsville Too

Martinsville Speedway isn’t for candy-ass drivers or spectators. And that’s the best thing about the joint.

Like Fenway Park, one doesn’t go to Martinsville Speedway expecting the comforts and “amenities” of modern-day event facilities. Racing fans in southwest Virginia don’t go to races to sip lattes and possibly meet celebrities. No one goes to the paperclip to play roulette and maybe catch a few laps of a NASCAR event.

The town of Martinsville isn’t built to host an event that may, and usually does, draw as many as 65,000 people. Parking is difficult to find and hotels are not abundant enough. There aren’t any major U.S. routes or interstates going through town. And you aren’t going to roll out of your hotel bed at 9 a.m. if you want to beat Martinsville race traffic.

None of that matters. Martinsville Speedway need not offer individual seats, crab cakes or slot machines. It doesn’t even really need the hot dogs. Martinsville offers the only thing NASCAR’s best and most dedicated fans ask for – hard-nosed, close quarters, blood-on-the-floor and busted fenders automobile racing.

Put a hot rookie in decent equipment and he can often contend for a win on an intermediate or restrictor-plate track. If he comes from an open-wheel series, he may even grab a win at a road course. Put a rookie in the best car in the field at Martinsville and watch him get shoved to the back in 20 laps before he spins out a couple of times. Forget uniformity with the car design. Few elements of NASCAR put success in the driver’s hands like Martinsville Speedway does.

Recently NASCAR made it abundantly clear that Kansas Speedway is going to get another race date. It’s the casino, you see. Nothing makes a fan more likely to show up for a race than the prospect of losing his shirt at a blackjack table while partaking of a buffet. I think that’s why Dover is popular, right?

With this news, you know, you just know, that one of the most entertaining and historic tracks left on the circuit is in NASCAR’s sights for swiping that second date. You need only to look at recent history to see that. For performing poorly attendance-wise, Atlanta and Fontana are given better dates – their dates were switched to give them a coveted Labor Day and a Chase date, respectively – after North Wilkesboro and Rockingham were shoved out of the door the moment they could be, their relevance to the history of the sport disregarded. Even Charlotte, the home of NASCAR – and a town that has just forked over another $32 million of taxpayer money for “enhancements” to the coming NASCAR Hall of Fame – is now rumored to be in danger of losing a race to Las Vegas. There must be something about casinos – maybe it’s the ubiquitous prostitutes – but NASCAR has also done everything it can to get the hell out of the Carolinas, and Martinsville is close enough to the border.

But just in case recent history doesn’t convince you, read a couple quotes from racing journalists:

“The day all the bureaucratic hassles are overcome in Denver or New York or wherever and a bulldozer breaks ground, the clock begins ticking on Martinsville. Right now, it’s a racetrack being saved by red tape.” – David Caraviello

“Martinsville is like the classic antique car that you keep protected in a safe place, the one you take for a spin only a couple of times a year before you put it back under wraps. But sometimes you have to trade in that old antique for something sleek and modern, and NASCAR may already be window shopping.” – Mark Aumann

Both of those writers work for NASCAR’s website. I’m not insinuating anything at all by saying that, and, in fairness, there have been some articles defending Martinsville on NASCAR’s web home. It’s just that there isn’t anyone at NASCAR.com suggesting that it’s time for Fontana to lose a race.

After losing the Rock, North Wilkesboro and a race at Darlington in a very short period of time, NASCAR should not even think about taking a race date away from yet another iconic southeastern track. They might still have Atlanta, Richmond and Charlotte, but Martinsville, Bristol and Talladega truly represent the small-town, rural, blue-collar crowd for whom NASCAR isn’t just a sport.

These folks are still the most hardcore, dedicated fans. They have been insulted enough in the name of higher revenues. A business decision is what it is and I understand that, but giving back some of the loyalty that your most devoted customers have shown is an element of good business too, intangible though it may be. Goodwill, businessmen sometimes call it. If Brian France guaranteed that Martinsville would keep both races for at least 10 more years, it would be a fine gesture to small town fans that have spent the last five years wondering where NASCAR went. Happy Hour would be the first to praise such an announcement.

Besides, the size of the down home base is quantifiable in one glaring way.

Brian France himself cited Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s failure to make the Chase in 2007 as a reason for sagging ratings for their beloved Chase; he may be more right about that than even he knows. It isn’t absurd to suggest that as goes Junior, so goes NASCAR – and all of its related websites, incidentally. NASCAR is fully aware of that. Part of the reason the Chase was implemented was to enable more popular drivers – Dale Jr., Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart – to be in the title hunt at the end. When all three of their biggest names failed to make the 10-driver cut in the first three years, the Chase was expanded to 12 drivers. One suspects that when Junior didn’t make the 12-car playoff field last season, more “tweaks” were considered. One could also question why NASCAR made an effort to slow down Toyota this year but not to slow down Chevrolet or Hendrick Motorsports during their domination last year – was it because they knew their biggest star would be driving a Chevrolet for Hendrick in 2008?

Of course NASCAR wants Junior to be in it at the end. It would be great for business. But instead of baldly trying to improve the chances of that happening, NASCAR could look at the reason for Junior’s popularity. Have they forgotten?

When Dale Earnhardt passed, suddenly there wasn’t much of a contingent of good ol’ boys in NASCAR anymore. The sport was now guys from Indiana, Missouri and Wisconsin. Even the rookie that took over for the Intimidator was from California. Five months later NASCAR came back to the scene of its darkest hour, and the son of the fallen star who inherited his name won an emotional victory, sending a message to and from the beer drinkers and the hell-raisers: we ain’t dead yet. And a star was born at Daytona.

He may have some fans outside of the Carolinas, but Junior represents the South and he is by far NASCAR’s biggest star. So do the math. That, to a great extent, tells you where a big chunk of NASCAR’s base is: in Alabama, the Carolinas, Tennessee – and southern Virginia. They will travel a long way and tolerate parking insanity to attend a NASCAR event. They’ll happily sit on benches and not wonder if they’ll have a place to gamble afterward. As fans, they’re keepers.

We’ve lost Earnhardt and Benny Parsons. Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip have long been retired, relegated to being ambassadors for the sport. North Wilkesboro and Rockingham and half of Darlington’s races are now gone. And soon Martinsville and even Charlotte may be on the chopping block to lose race dates. When southern Virginia and North Carolina fans don’t have a place to see a NASCAR event, will they watch the Kansas race on TV?

Try to find another way, Brian. Goodwill, fans sometimes call it.

And Now For Something Completely Different – A Look Inside Kurt’s Shorts

  • As I stated in Mirror Driving, I really didn’t care a whit about seeing the photos of the spat between Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards in the garage. But I am noticing that Edwards’s behavior is becoming more erratic. This is two Chases in a row that he’s gone after someone without caring who is watching. If the incidents mount, will Jack Roush let Carl become Roger Penske’s problem too?
  • It seems as though whoever wins the race on a Chase weekend usually becomes a “legitimate title threat.” Unless Jimmie Johnson crashes or blows an engine, Jeff Burton isn’t going to catch him. Burton’s had two wins, seven top fives and 17 top 10s this year – while Johnson has five wins, 12 top fives and 19 top 10s. One race doesn’t change that Johnson’s been better overall all year.
  • It seems like every race at Martinsville has its “dart without feathers” rookie, and it’s going to be really interesting with Scott Speed in the Martinsville field in the No. 84. It could be fun to watch a guy as cocky as Speed – he makes Kyle Busch look humble – get a baptism of fire at a short track. But he did finish 10th in his only Martinsville start in the Truck Series, so he may shut me up this weekend.
  • This weekend may be Gordon’s best chance to end his winless streak. It might seem surprising that a driver who once won 13 races in a season would have a winless streak last this long, but that does suggest that the competition has improved since 1998, my rants notwithstanding. Not all bad.

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